The Danger of Being a Critic


Negativity always comes with a price. A big one. It’s easy for me to be a critic. I grew up in a family that prided itself in finding what’s wrong with the world and each other. It was sort of a sport around the dinner table to see who would outwit the rest and deliver the best put down. We all laughed, but someone always got hurt.

Now I’m a professional critic whose livelihood is partially funded by my ability to discern what’s wrong or what’s not working and help organizations figure out how to communicate in order to move to the next level. Being a critic is dangerous, and I’m very aware of the negativity that can creep in and suck the life out of every experience.

critics criticism

I have to work hard on being positive because cynicism and negativity are the first ones at my gate. I don’t want to end up like a lot of the angry people out there whose lives are dedicated to criticizing, denouncing, exposing, and judging people, who most often, they don’t even know. Sadly, the internet has given them a perfect dark place to hide and hate.

Henri Nouwen writes about his encounter with an angry man and the effect it had on him. This is a long passage, but worth the reading.

He sat in front of me. He was in his early sixties. The deep lines in his face, his unkempt hair, but mostly his burned-out eyes showed he was a very unhappy man. We talked about the weather, “It’s hot” he said, “Much too hot, I can hardly breathe, the humidity kills me.” I tried to cheer him up a little by saying, ‘We can use a little sun, and the humidity, well think of it as a free sauna.’ But he did not hear me. No smile came to his face. He began to talk about a colleague who left him many years ago. About a friend who had not called or written to him for two months, and about his neighbors who kept him awake during the afternoon when he wanted to take a nap. My presence was little more than an occasion for him to pour out his many complaints.

He pointed out to me the corruption in our government, the war in Bosnia, the hunger in Somalia, the violence in South Africa. “The world is falling apart all over the place”, he said, “the television, the radio, the newspapers, they all show it. And they don’t even show the full truth.” I felt a sensation of darkness creeping around me. Where is this darkness coming from, I wondered. I am face to face with an angry man.

So, I said nothing. I remained silent out of a deep feeling of powerlessness in front of so much rage.

When I returned home and found myself all alone, I noticed that my body was shaking. I laid down in my bed and stared at the ceiling. And then I saw the angry man again. I saw him, not sitting in front of me, but walking slowly, bent over, pulling an enormous load behind him. He groaned and moaned as he moved forward. At times he seemed to lose his balance.

As I continued to stare at the ceiling, I saw them all. Men, women, children emerging out of his long past. Chained to each other and to him. And while I kept looking in horror at the old man and his burden, the voice returned to me and said, “You are the man. You are the one you just met.” I didn’t want to hear those words, but the voice went on. “Don’t you see that you can’t let go of your burden. Don’t you see, you are the burden carrier. Don’t you see that without your burden, you don’t know who you are.” I protested, ‘But I don’t want such a burden! I don’t care for such a load.’ But gradually, my heart caused me to see that taking away my burden from me would be like taking the boat from the fisherman or the keys from the janitor or the car from the chauffeur or the bricks from the builder. Who would I be without my anger? Who would I be without anyone to judge or condemn? Who would I be without my complaints, without my feelings of rejection? Yes, without enemies? I am the victim. The one who cannot survive without my burden. I have become my burden.”

It’s easy for me to hide behind my professional duty to see what’s wrong, broken, the mediocre and let the insidious work of negativity to shape me in to the angry old man Nouwen encountered. I fight it every day. Sometimes I think I’m losing that war.

Are you a critic? Is it easy for you to see what’s wrong in a situation?

  • Hi Maurilio – I'll use my "critical heart" to ask a question…I see from your twitter friends that you went to a wine tasting party with your friends. Do you drink wine Maurilio? What kind of testimony is it for the lost that Christians go to Friday night wine tasting parties? Just curious, since one of your clients, FBC Jax, has always taken a position of abstinence from drinking of alcoholic beverages…or does that make us all a "hotbed of legalism"?

  • Great thoughts! I'm wired much like you.

  • Once again, the "Dawg" has issues!! Wow, I didn't see this coming. A sip of wine compared to your everlasting divisiveness seems a bit tame. I have said it before and I will say it again, your bitterness will be your undoing. What is this unholy obsession you have with Maurilio, Mac and your self-assumed "watchdog/demagogue" status?! Kinda makes me a little ill. I would say that your blob (yes, I said "blob") has done more to harm the Kingdom of God than any self righteous preconception of "Christian/non Christian" activity you can pull out of your a**. (edited for those who might be a wee bit sensitive) Read your Bible – it was not that good old fashioned Welch's grape juice they drank in biblical times, regardless of what they told you in Sunday School. And let me lay a little scripture on ya, "Dawg." I will even use the King James version, as I am sure you believe this is just how Jesus wrote it. Matt. 15:10-11 10.And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand:11.Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. In this arena, with what you have brought to this and other discussions, I can only say, "You have been weighed, you have been measured and you have been found wanting."

  • Wasn't talking to you Billy, and your anger and profanity here on Maurilio's blog tells more about you than it does about me.Just wondered if Maurilio, who is involved in our church at FBC Jax as someone who gives our pastor guidance…drinks wine and thinks it wise to go to wine tasting parties and twitter about them when one of his clients, FBC Jax…is a church that has for years taught abstinence when it comes to the issue of alcohol consumption.Hey Billy – maybe you could do better next time and fit a f*** or a s*** into Maurilio's blog!! I'll be waiting and watching.

  • That was a great read Maurilio.And you didn't even have to give us an example of a critical heart. The Watchdog spoke up for himself.Watchdog, your paws were stepped on and that must mean that you know you're guilty of having a critical heart. I suggest taking the Anon's comment on the latest article from your blog seriously.

  • @ the "dawg" – I am not angry, as a matter of fact I could not be enjoying myself any more than I am. You are SO easy…fetch boy, fetch!!

  • I do enjoy reading the twitters…but I have to ask: why so many references to eating spicy Mexican food or beans and farting?

  • I grew up in a house that was just the opposite–no one ever said a hurtful word about anyone so I feel very sensitive to the criticism of others and always play the role of the peacemaker. At home I try to soften my husband’s tone and at work (I manage 75 book critics at ForeWord Reviews) I edit the “snarkiness” from a writer’s critique. It can be exhausting. If you think people can be critical in-person, give them a pen and paper and the license to unload–and they will! I’m not sure that taking on that burden and never letting it out is all that healthy either. The motto at our house was always, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Constructive criticism is acceptable but its all about the delivery; I like the Oreo method: squish the negative between two positives–it will go down much easier.

    • Jennifer, I like “the oreo method” approach. Great thought. I usually try to start with a positive, but I don’t always think of bring another positive. In my work, however, there are often not enough positives to surround every negative. Maybe I’m not looking too hard.

  • Hey Maurilio,
    I needed this post today. Have found myself becoming critical about certain situations and people. Your post has nipped that critical spirit in the bud.
    Thank you so much.

    • Dave, I wrote it for me, but I’m glad it helped you as well.

  • Bianca

    Great read and perfectly timed for today! Thanks 🙂

  • Jared Herd

    Hey Maurilio, 

    Never been to your blog, but love this post, and what a great reminder from Nouwen. what book is that from? Great thoughts, needed it. thank you. 

    • Thank you for stopping by, Jared. I’ve had that Nouwen quote for some time. I believe it’s from “The Way of the Heart.” One of my favorite of his.

  • I was just interviewing our senior pastor for a video presentation of the Gospel from our leadership, and he pointed to our natural inclination to judge, criticize, and ultimately tear down others in order to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. Without Christ, our identity is molded by our capability to diminish others and enhance ourselves. My pastor then explained how in Christ, we are freely given an identity we don’t have to fight for. Ultimately, we are all the same. We can see ourselves in the people we would otherwise be tempted to criticize. We can also find Christ there. His grace shows no favoritism.

  • About a month or so ago, I realized that I had become a pretty big critic, especially of the church. I had been holding on to the hurts I experienced at my last church and kept jumping from church to church pointing out reasons why I couldn’t get involved there. Some were legit, others were just me looking for that elusive “perfect” church. God finally challenged me that I could sit on the sidelines and criticize the rest of my life, or I could create something better. But I couldn’t do both. So I finally jumped in, got involved and am seeing that critical heart melt away.

    Great post Maurilio, and very timely. 

    • Good for you Jason. There will always be many reasons not to get involved. Ultimately, we are the ones who lose by not engaging.

      • That’s pretty much why I got involved – was tired of missing out.

  • Drmac

    Bravo and Amen!

  • Deb

    I too fight it everyday! Thanks for this! “The internet . . . the perfect dark place to hide and hate.” What a powerful comment. Blessings, Deb

  • Izholidae

    Working in theater for many years, I totally get how the professional critiquing soooo easily becomes a daily habit- involving everyone around me at any given moment. Last night I attended a fashion show in a small town. As a NY theater professional, It was painful for me. Unfortunately, my Aussie friend didn’t understand my criticism and just thought me crass. Today I’ve wrestled with what my pointing out flaws and ways to fix them says about me to those nearby. I’d just never seen it clearly until last night. Your post tells me God wants me to pay attention to this… And keep my big mouth shut until I can learn to be uplifting- instead if tearing down.
    Grazie mille!

  • Rick White

    Good word Maurilio.

  • What’s preferences do you have related to Myers-Briggs personality typing? I often preference INTJ–which I believe leads to seeing the way to improvements is looking for what’s wrong or what’s not be thought of. I too hide behind this to think that I’m being helpful. Yet I know my family and friends often need my support–not me prodding for perfectionism–or even worse–me proving myself by seeing “what’s wrong.”

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  • Jane Keller

    I need this reminder. Thank you.

  • Mark H Jeffress

    I love Henri Nouwen. Thank you for this important reminder

  • I think many creative people struggle with this because, as you say, we are easily able to see flaws. And many are totally unaware of the negative energy they project. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Sherry Langland

    I am also a member of the Critics Club, born and raised. Mom was the head critic. I am thankful that I learned to recognize it and ways to combat it. It is an ongoing battle because I, too, do not want to end up angry and bitter. But, the battle does get a little easier and easier the more I practice it.

  • James Thomas

    There’s more than one definition of critic, e.g.

    * a person who expresses an unfavourable opinion of something:
    * a person who judges the merits of literary or artistic works, especially one who does so professionally

    It can be worth trying to temper the tendencies of the first with the duties of the second. Sometimes they overlap and a judgement might be justifiably entirely negative, but more often the analysis is nuanced and the second kind of critic can bring insight due to their expertise in the area under discussion and, crucially, a distance from the creators of whatever is being critiqued.

    I wrote about this the other day in the domain of software testing:

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